Optimists are Realists – the studies are in!


Guest Blogger: Terry Paulson   
When I wrote “The Optimism Advantage,” I was already sold on Seligman’s work on learned optimism. But in doing preparation for the book, I found other research that indicated that optimists are realists. It makes sense. If earned optimism comes from a track record of overcoming obstacles, than you’ve had the experience of facing, analyzing and overcoming problems. To do that, you have to really understand and accept the problem. They are realists because they believe that by understanding a problem, they can cope more effectively. Here are a couple of quotes that I saved that points this out.
“The myth: Optimists are amiable (probably IQ-challenged) Pollyannas who shield themselves from bad signs and aren’t prepared when trouble strikes. Lisa Aspinwall, a University of Maryland psychologist, got $50,000 for work showing just the reverse. She found that happy, optimistic people are more willing than pessimists to read bad news about their health habits and more willing to learn about their failures on tests. They also remember bad news longer than pessimists do. Far from being unrealistic Pollyannas, optimists give up sooner than pessimists when presented with unsolvable problems, Aspinwall discovered. ‘Pessimists may not want to know bad news about themselves because, unlike optimists, they don’t think there’s anything they can do about it,’ she says. Optimists may want to know where they’ve erred ‘so they can improve later—of course, they think they can improve.’ And their open approach promotes better relationships. Optimistic couples are more likely than pessimists to bring up what’s bothering them so it can be resolved. ‘They may be more confident that they can solve things,’ Aspinwall says, ‘but when something can’t be solved, they seem to recognize that earlier.’” Marilyn Elias (USA Today, 5-16-2000)“Numerous studies show that optimists, far from protecting their fragile vision of the world, confront trouble head-on, while it is pessimists who bury their heads in the sand of denial. In a 1993 study of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer, the women with an optimistic disposition were more likely to acknowledge the seriousness of the disease, experienced less distress and took more active steps to cope with it. ‘Pessimism was associated with denial and a giving up response.’ Said Charles Carver of the University of Miami, who conducted the study with Micahel Scheier of Carnegie Mellon University. ‘Optimism was associated with positively reframing the situation, with women believing, ‘This is not going to go away, so let me make the best of it I can.’’Carver said.” Terence Monmaney (LA Times, 1-5-2000, pp. A1, 15)

“A study of 78 men with AIDS provided evidence that optimists live longer. Those who indicated that they had a realistic view of their disease’s course died an average of nine months sooner than those who were optimistic about postponing the end…. The central paradox of positive thinking is clear—Clinging to the belief in a positive future against reasonable odds sometimes makes it happen.” Shelley Taylor, Positive Illusions” (January 8, 2000, 4A, Sun-Sentinel, South Florida)

Dr. Terry Paulson is a psychologist, professional speaker, columnist and author of the popular books “The Optimism Advantage,” “Leadership Truths One Story at a Time,” “Making Humor Work,” and “They Shoot Managers Don’t They?”
Explore posts in the same categories: Influence, Motivation, Real life stories

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One Comment on “Optimists are Realists – the studies are in!”


  1. Thanks for honoring me with this post. Earned Optimism isn’t motivation on hype; it’s a function of being effective as a problem solver. True optimistic problem solvers are realists. That’s part of what makes their optimism work. Faced with only a 5% survival rate for cancer…the optimists asks what can be done to be part of the 5% and gets busy doing just that.


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